Irregardless of the quality of the game itself, it’s genuinely thrilling to live in the timeline where Darksiders 3 actually managed to make it onto shelves.
As that first title screen faded into focus, I found myself struck by a sense of improbability. Impossibility, even. The notion that this game I’m playing right now should not be exist. Even as a diehard fan of the series, I had long surrendered any hope that a third Darksiders game would ever see the light of day. And yet, here we are.
For the uninitiated, the first Darksiders dropped in 2010. A fantastical reimagining of the Book of Revelations, the game saw you take up the mantle of War - one of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - who sets out on a quest for redemption after he’s framed for a crime (‘starting Armageddon and ending all human life on earth’) he didn’t commit.
Developer Vigil Games quickly followed things up with a sequel - Darksiders 2 - in 2012, which shifted focus to another member of the four horsemen: Death. And with both Darksiders games proving themselves critical and commercial hits, a third game seemed all but inevitable. The first two installments left plenty of cliffhangers unresolved and, besides that, there were still two Horsemen of the Apocalypse left to tacke.
Unfortunately, with the collapse of publisher THQ - at the time, the owner of Vigil Games - plans to continue the series were scuttled. Until now. Reborn under the banner of Gunfire Games, the core team behind the original games has returned to try and resurrect the franchise with Darksiders 3 - the sequel that never was.
The big-picture timeline for the Darksiders series is kind of weird, so bear with me here.
Darksiders 3 kicks off just after the start of the first game - when the Apocalypse happens - but takes well before War returns to Earth a century later. Players take control of Fury - the franchise’s first female lead - and are tasked with cleaning up some of the chaos that Armageddon has left in its wake. More specifically, Fury is charged with tracking down and destroying the Seven Deadly Sins - a cadre of powerful demons running amok on a ruined and ravaged Earth.
As with previous games in the series, this initial mission gives structure to the bulk of the experience. Even if the motives and agendas of those involved don’t fully reveal themselves until later on, your goal is clear from the get go. In spite of all the melodrama and mythology haunting the series’ convoluted timeline, you have a good idea of what you’re working towards at any given moment.
Darksiders 3 doesn’t quite feel like a rehash, but it definitely feels familiar - and, in some ways, maybe too much so. If you were hoping that the third installment in the series would be the four-player co-op adventure described by ex-Vigil creative director Joe Madureira, this ain’t it. Like previous games in the series, Darksiders 3 deals out a hand comprised of familiar gameplay mechanics and dripping with comic book style.
If we’re going to list the biggest sources and influences here, Darksiders 3 is a third-person action-adventure that plays like both a hybrid of and homage to God of War, The Legend of Zelda and Castlevania. If you’ve played any of the above (or any previous Darksiders games), you’ll have some idea what to to expect. You run around a 3D environment, fight enemies, solve puzzles, defeat bosses and advance the story. This time around, however, there’s also a little bit of Dark Souls in the mix as well.
As a result, the combat in Darksiders 3 is a fair bit more challenging than previous installments. Spamming basic combos will only get you so far. Eventually, you’ll have to learn enemy attack patterns - and how to time your dodges accordingly. Defeating enemies will earn you souls, which can be spent on consumables and character upgrades for Fury.
You lose all your souls upon death, so the pace of the game is very much set by your ability to fight from waypoint to waypoint and spend souls as you earn them to ensure your power level keeps pace with your adversaries. Fury is more fragile than previous protagonists, and it doesn’t take too much damage for her to go down.
Though inevitably-derivative, these Souls-like changes actually feel more than appropriate given the series’ history. The original Darksiders’ slashy combat was very directly inspired by the genre-touchstones of its time - games like God of War and Devil May Cry. The same sort of broader industry trends and influences can be seen in Darksiders 2, which embraced deeper loot-driven RPG-style gameplay because that’s what most AAA action games at that time were doing.
In that context, the fact that From Software titles like Dark Souls and Bloodborne have inspired some of the gameplay choices in Darksiders 3 makes perfect sense. By this point, borrowing from the best is as much a tradition as it is a predisposition for the franchise.
Another difference to note here is that while the previous installments in the series relied on a more linear spokes-and-wheels structure, Darksiders 3 takes place in what is essentially one large seamless dungeon. Each of the game’s five regions has a specific visual theme to it but areas often loop in and out of one another, making them feel like a single cohesive world.
There aren’t too many games out there that successfully mold the Metroidvania formula to 3D level design but Darksiders 3 makes a strong case for counting itself among them. Each new ability that Fury unlocks reveals new paths to explore and gives you a reason to revisit earlier levels. That said, I did lament the fact that the game never really presents you with any sort of map - which sometimes made it difficult to mentally map out how it all fits together.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
It’s a credit to the team at Gunfire Games that Darksiders 3 looks and feels like such a seamless, natural extension of its predecessor.
Yet, part of me can’t help but wish it was a little more than that. At times, Darksiders 3 plays like something out of the same era as its predecessors in ways that make it feel dated. In motion, the game looks stylish enough. However, seen up-close in cutscenes, there’s a lack of of fidelity and detail in the world and its characters models can’t help but feel out of place in a world where AAA games (like the recent Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey) look as striking as they do.
This staleness isn’t at all helped by the try-hard edginess of the game’s dialogue. Though true to the tone of previous Darksiders games, Darksiders 3’s grimdark attitude hasn’t aged well. It simply just doesn’t play as well in 2018 as it did in 2010. Though not without exception, the relentlessly over-the-top characterisations here feel out-of-date and more like to invite parody than enthusiasm.
And it doesn’t help that the story told over the course of the game is as limited and rote as it is. Sure, Fury’s quest to hunt down the Seven Sins sees her confront her own inner demons as well - but each of the Seven Sins is introduced and dispatches with such speed that few of these antagonists makes much of an impression, nor do the ways in which they prey upon the flaws of Fury’s own personality.
What’s more, as with Darksiders 2, Darksiders 3 fails to move the series’ broader narrative forward in any sort of meaningful way. It serves to explains what Fury has been up to during the events of the first two games but little else. I felt like I got everything I kind of expected from a basic-to-basics continuation of the Darksiders franchise - and that’s about it. As someone who wants to see where this story goes, I came away disappointed. There were no real surprises here, nor any fresh character introductions nor any payoffs to the series’ grand overarching narrative threads. Presumably, all this may come to pass in Darksiders 4 - but given there’s no telling whether that game actually gets made, I’m left irritated that Gunfire didn’t try to provide any sort of closure or continuation here.
There’s also a some more ancillary aspects of the overall experience where things feel a little rushed and underdeveloped. Though clearly designed to be more challenging than previous installments, I couldn’t help but feel like Darksiders 3’s camera system and inconsistent lock-on feature sometimes made it more difficult than it ought to be. The weapon enchantment system in the game feels like it’s introduced so late that it’s basically a wasted mechanic.
Lastly, the mounted combat featured previous games has also fallen by the wayside. Fury ends up being a Horsemen of the Apocalypse without a steed - which is invariably a bit of let-down.
The Bottom Line
Darksiders 3 is a stripped-down, fundamentals-focused continuation of the franchise that’ll likely appease fans looking for another one of those games - if only barely. It’s fun and challenging in the right spots but it fails to modernise and move the franchise forward in any meaningful ways that leave me excited to see where Darksiders goes next.
Darksiders 3 is good - and if you liked the previous games, you should probably play this one - but it’s not the triumphant return it feels like it should be. It feels like Gunfire have played things safe where it should be stroking the flames of ambition and innovation.
Not that this approach won’t resonate with some. As a fan of the series, I’ll be the first to admit I was delighted to have another one of these games to play. However, beyond that nostalgia, Darksiders 3 didn’t leave me hankering for more in the same way as previous games did. It was delight to return to this world and these characters, but if the series isn’t going to mature a little along the way - what’s the point?
Darksiders 3 feels like a sequel that never was in ways both good and bad. In some ways, it's exactly the game I wanted: third-person action game where you play as a cool-as-hell character and run around a cool-as-hell world using cool-as-hell weapons and abilities to take down a legion of cool-as-hell enemies. But it's so easy to see how it could have been so much more.
Darksiders 3 is available now on PS4, Xbox One and PC.